What do you own when you buy art?

Understanding the buyer’s side of copyright

But first, this is #2 of my 100 Faces Portrait Challenge. I have decided to swipe the 100 Heads concept and challenge myself to painting 100 Faces. Since I also do commissions, I am not going to hammer down a time frame for this challenge, but if I’m not working on commissions I’ll probably be working on this.

Amber Manuel is my niece who lives in Louisiana. She and her husband are avid cat lovers, so this pose was perfect for her portrait. As you can see the shadows contain a lot of blue, which results from device and monitor screens, a symbol of modern life.

NOTE: I am not a copyright lawyer so if you need support regarding copyright information, please contact someone who can give you the best legal advice for your situation.

I’ve had collectors express surprise when I have had their original painting made into other products such as mugs, prints, or clothing. Many buyers aren’t aware of all the ins and outs of copyright law when it comes to artwork, and what that means to them as a buyer. This article will give a brief overview of copyright pertaining to artworks, artists, and buyers.

When does copyright kick in?

Immediately upon creation of the artwork a copyright exists in the name of the creator. There doesn’t have to be any paper attached to this. I know, weird, right? But that’s US copyright law. So, as soon as I created the painting of Amber, above, I owned its copyright. It is not necessary to register a work of art with the copyright office or any government or legal entity in order to possess the copyright. Registering an artwork can provide solid provenance but it is not a necessity. I own the copyright of every piece of art I’ve created, with the exception of some pieces in years past when I was freelancing for magazines and sold those rights to the magazine.

What do you own when you buy artwork?

When you buy an artwork, you own the physical object and the right to display it. Unless you come to a specific agreement with the artist and create proof of that agreement, you do not have the right to alter, reproduce, or sell copies of that artwork. If you want to exhibit the artwork in some way, the ethical move would be to contact the artist and let them know. It’s quite possible the artist will want to attend any exhibits, or at least obtain photos and write-ups about the event.

You also have the right to sell the physical artwork. If I sold you a painting for $500 and someone offered you $1,000, you can legally sell it for $1,000.

You also have the right to sell the physical artwork. If I sold you a painting for $500 and someone offered you $1,000, you can legally sell it for $1,000. But you can’t sell the copyright to this new buyer. You don’t own that, so it isn’t yours to sell.

Does the artist still have rights to the artwork you purchased?

Yes, in most cases the artist still owns the intellectual property represented by that artwork. Intellectual property is, in a sense, the stuff an artist thunk up and put into some physical form. Even if I sell the portrait of Amber, I can still create and sell copies of it. It is possible for a transfer of copyright from the artist to the collector to occur, but that needs to be done in a traceable process. If I were to sell the copyright to an artwork, my likely choice would be to register the artwork to the buyer through the copyright office, although that wouldn’t be necessary. I would charge a fee, and since it eliminates all future opportunities for me to earn money on that artwork, the cost would be high relative to the cost of the artwork alone.) Unless you buy those rights from me and have a way to prove that you own them, I can legally create and sell prints based on a painting you purchased.

In a nutshell, I can’t legally come over to your house and take back a painting I created that you subsequently bought. But I can use a photo of the painting I created to make products or prints to sell again. You can sell the painting, but you can’t sell my copyright.

Why should you buy a painting if you don’t own all the rights to it?

Well, you will own the original oil painting of the artwork. To own a print is nice, but to own an original oil painting is really special. This is where the artist made their marks that made something special.

I hope this provides some clarity on this complex issue of copyright.

Onward and Upward!